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Symphony No 1 & The Isle of the Dead

Russian National Orchestra, Mikhael Pletnev
DG 463 075-2, Full Price 63'45
 Amazon UK 


Pletnev's Rachmaninov tends to be revelatory, and this coupling is no exception. The First Symphony has a drive and a passion that many conductors miss (or rather, prefer to miss) in this failed work, but this brings with it some unexpected problems. One of these is the darkness Pletnev draws from his Russian strings. I don't think I have ever heard a more tragic, more leaden sounding performance of this work than the one on this disc. There are, of course, enormous benefits to be had by dividing his violins left and right, but the focus of sound on this recording (which is very bass heavy) comes from the centre of the orchestra - and this means darker cellos and violas.

I don't think this is as authentically Russian a performance as some might wish, or claim, it to be. The opening to the final movement has a breadth one doesn't get with Previn or Jansons and the climaxes are suddenly whipped up only to dissipate and vanish. There is genuine excitement at the close of the first movement, and the middle movements are, in contrast, much lighter than those of rival conductors. The playing is a virtue in itself with woodwind particularly evocative. I haven't heard a Russian orchestra sound so compelling in Rachmaninov since Sanderling's legendary recording of the Second Symphony.

Whereas the First Symphony is a problematic work The Isle of the Dead is a near-masterpiece. Pletnev again brings to his performance a deep, saturated string sound - and this is much more persuasive in a work that demands string playing of the very highest order. The cellos and basses are thunderous, the violins taut and passionate. The central climax, and the build up to it, is simply thrilling - even though Pletnev is not quite as compelling as Koussevitsky in his unrivalled recording of this work.

I have found Pletnev's playing of the Rachmaninov piano concertos to be at times heavy-handed. It is a trait his recordings of the symphonies often seem to emulate. These are undoubtedly fascinating performances (superbly played), but I would not want to return to them often.

Marc Bridle

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Marc Bridle

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